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Proposals to ban purchase of sugary drink with food stamps won't work

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The same types of flaws that caused the New York judge to overrule the soda size-limits are inherent in these proposals to ban the purchase of sugary drinks using food stamps. Not only will this policy likely not change what food-stamp recipients drink, but it may also harm the overall food-stamp program.

The food stamp program – officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – is a cornerstone of America’s safety net, providing food assistance to just more than 1 in every 7 Americans.

Monthly SNAP benefits are distributed via electronic benefit transfer cards that function like debit cards, which can be used at most grocery stores and many other outlets such as convenience stores and farmers markets. Since its inception in the 1960s, the program's recipients have been able to use their benefits to purchase almost any foods at the grocery store, except for alcohol, vitamins, and hot foods intended for immediate consumption like rotisserie chickens.

Public-health advocates rightly point out that sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of excess calories in the average American diet, and they provide no nutritional benefit. Assuredly, low-income and higher-income Americans alike would be better off if they substituted water for some of their daily soda consumption.

But the policy recommendation to disallow the purchase of sugary drinks with SNAP benefits exaggerates the potential impacts on obesity such a ban would have. This is because the rationale for the ban is based on a false understanding of how SNAP benefits work.

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